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A Charmed Place

Chapter 1

"He'd look perfect tied to my bedposts," Norah decided.

Joan lifted the binoculars from her friend's grip and focussed them on the lighthouse at the tip of the windswept peninsula. After a minute, she said, "They'd better be pretty strong bedposts."

She held out the binoculars to Maddie Regan--who, as always, was the first to show up at Rosedale, her family's summer cottage on the Cape. "Here, Maddie. Have a look."

"Thank you, no," said Maddie, walking away from the kitchen window with her box of books. "Unlike the two of you, I happen to have a life."

Norah arched one beautifully shaped eyebrow. "Well, la-dee-da. Doing what? Spending another summer on the Cape, watching the beach erode? Get with the program, Maddie. Women our age have to keep their eyes open. Especially women our age in Dulltown."

Maddie managed a wry smile and said, "There's nothing wrong with Sandy Point. It's where I want to be every year come June. It's where I want a teenage daughter to be. It's quiet; it's safe; it's--"

"Dull. Let's face it. It's dull. We aren't the Hamptons. We aren't the Vineyard. We aren't even Newport. There's nothing to do in Sandy Point, and no one rich to do it with."

Joan, still focussed on the peninsula, said, "This one could change all that, Norah. No kidding. Wow. Killer aura. He's standing in front of the lighthouse, looking out at the ocean. The wind's blowing his hair around. You can't mistake the guy. It really is him. Sure you don't want a peek, Maddie?"

Maddie shook her head and kept to her box of books.

Norah took Maddie's refusal personally. "You do understand our situation here? Three women, nada men--none worth bringing down from Boston, anyway? How are we going to network? This is turning into a serious dry spell, Maddie. I'm still separated. Joan's still single. And you're still--"

"All right, all right. Divorced," Maddie conceded. "But unlike you two, not dribbling with lust."

"Why should you be?" Norah shot back. "Your ex has a condo two miles away, and he's willing to bed you any time you want."

"But I don't want."

"I've never really understood that," Joan admitted. "Michael's always been so kind, so considerate to me."

"So considerate to everyone," said Norah with a caustic smile. She repossessed the binoculars from Joan and aimed them on her prey. "Nuts. He's gone. No, wait. Here he comes out of the lighthouse--with a basket of laundry. Good Lord. Dan Hawke is going to hang his own laundry. Dan Hawke!"

Joan, as usual, had a theory. "He's a war correspondent. He's probably used to washing his socks in some dead soldier's helmet."

"Joannie, the way you put things. Okay, here we go. First item out of the basket: jeans. I'd say a thirty-four waist, tops. How cute--he's holding the clothespins between his teeth. Oh, Maddie, you should look. He looks nothing like he does on TV."

Maddie dropped another box of books onto the kitchen table and began unlocking its cardboard flaps. "How would you know, Norah? You never watch CNN."

Without taking her focus away from the lighthouse, Norah made a snotty sound in her throat. "Now, now; just because I sell shlock art for a living, it doesn't mean I don't watch CNN."

"Have you ever actually seen him in a broadcast from a war zone?"

Norah shrugged and said, "No. But it doesn't mean I don't watch CNN."

"Well, I watch it," Joan chimed in, "and I can tell you, the guy makes an impression. It isn't his tousled hair or his flak jacket; they all have that. And he's not especially to-die-for handsome. It's more his air of--I don't know--reluctance. As if he can't stand what he's doing but he does it anyway because somebody has to, and he can do it better."

"Bullshit," Norah argued. "War pays his bills."

Joan, less assured but more introspective than taller, thinner, richer, red-haired Norah, decided to dig in her heels. "He hates his work. I'll bet my house on it. He's come to Sandy Point because he's burned out."

"Pillowcases," said Norah, looking up from her binoculars and flashing the other two women a knowing grin. "That's a good sign. He's only been renting for a couple of days. He must be fastidious."

"Fastidious!" Joan had another theory. "That's the last thing he'd be. War correspondents eat leaves and grass if they have to, and sleep in the crotches of trees."

"A waste," said Norah with a snort. "He should be sleeping in another kind of crotch altogether."


Maddie said it too sharply for someone who wasn't supposed to be listening. She looked away. Norah was being outrageously--well, Norah. It didn't mean anything.

Norah seemed oblivious to the scolding. A second or two later, still gazing through the binoculars, she said, "One two three, four, five, six hankies. How quaint; he uses handkerchiefs."

Joan had theories for that, too. "Of course he uses handkerchiefs. Do you really think he can buy purse-sized Kleenex in the jungles of Guatemala? Besides, they make good tourniquets."

She added in a thoughtful voice, "I remember one of his reports from Chechnya. There were half a dozen rebels huddled around a campfire, trying to keep warm, and most were in rags. He wasn't wearing anything better. I suppose he bartered his jacket for information."

"Whatever." Obviously Norah wasn't listening. Her high cheekbones had become flushed with the first faint sign of her formidable temper. Maddie braced herself.

Norah snorted at Maddie in a fed-up way and said, "You know what your problem is, Maddie Regan? You're too damned prim. You're too damned proper. And you're too damned passive."

She handed off the binoculars to Joan and launched into an all-too-familiar lecture. "You assume the Right One will just drop in your lap while you're sipping iced tea on your patio." She folded down one of the box flaps over Maddie's forearm, forcing her to pay attention. "And meanwhile life is passing you by. You've been divorced for four years, Maddie," she added, sounding extremely annoyed about it. "You're forty. What're you waiting for?"

Maddie reached into the box and pulled out a hardcover. "I'm waiting for this guy to make the New York Times," she quipped, waving a Horston novel in front of Norah. "He's vastly underrated."

Norah responded with a stony look, so Maddie gave her an honest answer. "I'm not waiting for the Right One ... or the Wrong One ... or anyone, Norah. I have my hands full with all the relationships--"

"None of them sexual!"

"--that I can handle at the moment."

Nudging the cardboard flap open again, Maddie lifted Guterson's bestseller out of the box, and one by Oates, and Vonnegut's way-too-old Cat's Cradle. This was the summer to revamp the Freshman survey in contemporary literature that she taught. She'd meant to do it last summer; but last summer she was still caught up, along with the rest of her family, in shock. No one did much of anything last summer.

"And I'm not prim," she threw out over her shoulder.

Passive, maybe. Proper, obviously. But not prim.

"Of course you're prim!" snapped Norah. "Who the hell else could resist gawking at a bona-fide celebrity who's spending the summer a few hundred yards away from her?"

"The man is renting a lighthouse," Maddie reminded her friend. "In a backwater summering hole. It's obvious, at least to me, that he wants privacy."

"It's obvious that he doesn't want it! He went and became a celebrity of his own free will! If you had a shred of decency in you, you'd be fawning over him like the rest of us. He's entitled to it!"

"Oh, pooh," said Joan in a disappointed voice. "He has a woman with him."

"What? Let me have those," said Norah, snatching the binoculars back from Joan with such vigor that she knocked Joan off balance.

"Watch it!" Joan snapped. The edge in her usually soft-pitched voice was a clear sign, at least to Maddie, that Norah had gone over the line again.

He has a woman with him.

Norah watched intently through the binoculars. After a considering silence she said, "Hard to say. If she's his lover, she's not a recent one. They seem too used to one another. She's leaning against the mud shed with her hands in the pockets of her sundress, mostly listening to him--the wind just blew her dress up; great legs--and nodding once in a while. I get the sense that she's just soaking him up. As if they go back together."

Norah looked up for a moment. "I am right that he never married?"

Joan said, "Not as far as I know. He made People's most-elegible list a few years ago--after the Gulf War--but then he kind of faded. So it's possible he went off and did something stupid, but I doubt it. We would've read about a wedding, in People if not in Newsweek. I imagine he was just living with someone. Probably her."

Joan rose up on tiptoe and pushed her glasses farther up her nose, trying for the same vantage over the cafe curtains that Norah had. In heels, Joan was able to manage an inch or two over five feet; but today she was wearing sandals. She was short. Her two best friends were tall. It made her peppery sometimes.

"Norah, would you mind?" Joan asked in a dangerously mild voice. "They're my binoculars, after all."

She reached for them but Norah shooed her away with her elbow, the way she might a pesky terrier. Maddie stepped in, as she always did, to keep the peace. She took the binoculars.

"All right, you two clowns; have a little dignity."

With Norah, dignity was always in short supply. She proved it now by nodding slyly toward the lighthouse: "Check it out--if you're not too prim."

Probably she'd used the exact same line on half the men she'd dated; Norah had no reason to be shy. With her knockout figure, creamy skin, red, red hair and full red lips, she was the kind of woman that made men take off their wedding rings and hide them in their hip pockets.

But Maddie was not, and never would be, Norah.

"Why are you being such a pain, Nor?"

"You're abnormal, you know that? Anyone else would look. Prim, prim, prim."

With an angry, heavy sigh, Maddie accepted the binoculars and aimed them in the general direction of the lighthouse. Her sense of dread ran deep. She did not want to gape at the man; did not want, most of all, to gape at the woman. What was the point? It would be like staring into her own grave.

"Yes. I see him. Yes. He looks like on TV." She held the binoculars out to Norah. "Happy now?"

"What about the woman? What do you think?"

"I didn't see any woman," said Maddie, grateful that a billowing bedsheet hid all but a pair of slender ankles from view.

"No, she's there, Maddie--I can see her now, even without the binoculars. Look again," Joan urged.

It was going to be so much worse than Maddie thought. She sighed and tried to seem bored, then took the glasses back for another look. This time she was spared nothing. A slender woman of medium height was facing squarely in their direction, laughing. The wind was lifting her blunt-cut hair away from her face and plastering her pale blue sundress against her lithe body. She was the picture of vitality and high spirits. And the sight of her filled Maddie with relief.

"It's obviously his sister," she said.

"Ah, his sister. Wait--how would you know?" Norah demanded.

She walks the way he does ... throws her head back when she laughs the way he does ... does that jingle-change thing in her pocket the way he does. Who else could she be?

Maddie spun a plausible lie. "I overheard it in the post office yesterday. I remember now."

"I don't believe it. She's half his age."

"I doubt it."

The two were five years apart. But the sister looked young for her years, and the brother carried thoughts of war and savagery with him everywhere he went. Joan was right: he looked burned out. Maddie could see it in the apathetic lift of his shoulders after the woman said something. It was such a tired-looking shrug.

Norah was watching Maddie more carefully now. She folded her forearms across her implanted breasts and splayed her red-tipped fingers on her upper arms. "What else did you manage to ... overhear, in the post office?" The question dripped with skepticism.

Maddie met her friend's steady gaze with one almost as good. "That was pretty much it. It was crowded. You know how little the lobby is. They took the conversation outside."

"Who were 'they'? Man? Woman? Did you recognize them from town?"

"Two women, as I recall. I didn't bother turning around to see who. As I've said, I'm not really interested."

Norah cocked her head. Her lined lips curled into a faint smile. Her eyes, the color of water found nowhere in New England, narrowed. "Really."

"Okay, they're getting into the jeep!" Joan cried. "Now what?"

"We follow 'em. Let's go!"

Maddie stared agape as the two made a dash for the dutch door, half opened, that led to the sea-shelled drive of the Victorian cottage. "Are you out of your minds? What do you hope to accomplish?"

Norah slapped the enormous glove-soft carryall she'd slung over her shoulder. "I have a camera," she said on her way out.

"You're going to photograph them?"

"If we don't, the paparazzi will!"

She had her Mercedes in gear before Joan was able to snap her seat belt shut. The top of the convertible was down, of course, the better for Norah to be seen. Maddie watched, boggled, as the two took off in a cloud of dust, Norah pumping her fist in a war whoop the whole time.

The episode bordered on the surreal: an educated, beautiful forty-year-old woman and an even more educated thirty-eight-year-old one, tracking down a media celebrity like two hound dogs after some felon in the bayou. All they needed was Maddie in the rumble seat and there they'd be: Three perfect Stooges.

She closed the lower half of the Dutch door and then, because she felt a sudden and entirely irrational chill, closed the upper half. June meant nothing on the Cape. June could go from warm and wonderful to bone-chilling cold in the blink of an eye.

June had done just that.

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